Coastal Voices: Feds must compensate for land grabs

By Gerry Hemmingsen June 16, 2012 12:00 am

Congress is currently in the midst of trying to negotiate a final surface transportation authorization bill. While this is important legislation for a number of reasons, it also could contain a one-year extension of two pieces of legislation that are critical to Del Norte County and other local governments across the country: the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, both of which have expired.

The federal government uses these and other programs to compensate local governments for the loss of tax revenue that would otherwise be received if the land remained in private ownership.  Local government revenues are primarily derived from property tax collections.  With limited property to tax, our ability to function and survive is significantly hindered.  In Del Norte County, more than 470,670 acres is owned by the federal government — nearly 73 percent of our entire community! And, that figure does not include land owned by the state or tribal governments, which further limits tax receipts.

Even if these programs are reauthorized by Congress, they remain a band-aid on a much bigger wound.  The duration of each program will be too short, and the dollars too limited. Instead of addressing real problems, they merely mask the challenges we face.

While this is going on, the Forest Service and Congress are providing federal funding — our tax dollars — to purchase private land in Del Norte owned by ALCO Holdings known as the Hurdygurdy Creek property. The federal government claims that this purchase makes sense because the property is essentially an “inholding,” that it’s surrounded by other federal lands.

What’s not discussed is how the land is essentially worthless on the open market; its only value is to the federal government.  Instead of offering a low, reasonable sum for the property, the federal government will almost certainly vastly overpay. Not only will Del Norte lose tax revenue from the sale, but your tax dollars will be used to overpay for the purchase.

The Forest Service can’t manage what it has, yet it wants to buy more. Consider the Goose Creek acquisition, which occurred four years ago. We were promised public access to the acquired property. Since then, a Forest Service access road to the property acquired by Del Norte County as part of the acquisition has been washed out and the Forest Service has yet to restore it. With the Forest Service unable to manage its forests, it’s only a matter of time before we have another catastrophic fire that ravages our air quality, damages our watersheds, and ruins recreational opportunities for all.

The Forest Service is also implementing its Travel Management Plan for the Smith River National Recreation Area and other forests across the country. In our area, this is code for a significant reduction in the ability of the public to access and enjoy our own forests. So, while more land is being bought and less funding is being provided to offset those purchases, our access to those lands continues to be further restricted.

Congress needs to initiate a holistic discussion regarding rural America. Instead of just giving us money for what the federal government has taken (which is always too little and too late), let us discuss where our economies are going and then try to determine what we can do to turn them around.

The promise of tourism sustaining us on its own is a fantasy.  But on the flip-side, I don’t believe timber harvesting alone is the cure-all either. A reasonable approach to the management of our forests combined with tourism and other industries could be sustainable, reasonable, and appropriate.

The federal government has a responsibility to backfill lost taxes for the land it has obtained and stand behind the decisions made many years ago that assured local government sustainability after the acquisition of property had taken place.

The nature of local government is based on the ability to provide services to people residing or visiting their counties, including people utilizing federal and state lands. The funding for these services, services mandated and expected, is intrinsically tied to property tax. The federal government must be true to its agreements and continue to provide adequate funding to local government to offset the acquisitions of the past, present and future.

SRS and PILT are not handouts. These funds have been dedicated for many years to fulfill the federal government’s responsibility. These funds are clearly compensation for revenue lost due to the actions of the federal government.

Gerry Hemmingsen is a Del Norte County supervisor.